When you don’t like an editor’s edits…

October 8, 2012 in Best Of, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough, through having done some freelance work earlier with the same magazine, to be given an opportunity to write a profile on a remarkable woman who devoted her life to those less fortunate than her. I was ecstatic because it was going to be published in several languages/countries and would be a great addition to the CV. Most of all, I love doing in-depth profiles, and I was determined to make this one totally awesome.

Initially, the process was not all that difficult, as I had already done some preliminary research during work for a related project. The interview was a blast, and although I would have liked to have gotten more secondary sources, on the whole I had more than enough for a compelling piece.

The writing was a little more difficult as I also had to deal with full-time work, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable to craft. The word limit was 1800 words, but I’ve always been the kind of writer that likes getting everything down on the page first, so by the time that first draft was done, I had almost 4500 words.

Cutting down the length is my specialty, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to chop away all that hard work. After about four rounds of edits, I was down to 2500 words, and I was at a loss as to how to trim it further.

So I did what every lazy writer would do — ask for more words. To my surprise, the request was granted; 2500 words, no problem — they can work with that, and the editor can work her magic on it if necessary. I even submitted the piece two days earlier.

I thought I was done and it was time to celebrate, but of course, as usual, I was wrong. The first editor I worked with was fantastic. She cast a spell and 300 more words fell away effortlessly, bringing the total to a publishable 2200 words. Crucially, she managed to preserve the essence of the article and all the key points. I was impressed. She also said she really liked it, which felt great.

She had a couple of questions and issues and we worked them out through email over the next day or two. I don’t remember having had to push back on anything. I remember her removing all my carefully planned section breaks, but the flow didn’t feel like it was interrupted, so I let it go.

I thought we were ready, but a couple of days after that, I received another email from the same editor, passing on the suggestions from the magazine’s editor-in-chief. I was told in the email that the EIC made some changes to the introductory sections, but didn’t really touch the remaining two-thirds.

When I opened up the document, my jaw dropped. I usually love working with editors because they teach me how to improve, but in this case the EIC totally butchered my original intro, which was a sensory anecdote, and replaced it with a more straight-forward, chronological, report-style beginning. It was, frankly, predictable and boring.

It was contrary to everything I had been taught about how to write the intro of a feature, and it was the opposite of what the magazine’s local editor had told me before I started writing. That said, my first impression was — I don’t like it, but it’s their magazine and if this is the way they like to do it, then fair enough. After all, this was the EIC of an international magazine — surely even at her worst she would be substantially better than me at my very best — who was I to complain?

But when I read the edits properly, I got angry. The EIC had gotten the basic facts muddled up, and asked a bunch of questions that were already answered in other parts of the article. Initially I thought perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, or that stuff got lost during the editing process — but after re-reading it and getting other casual readers to take a look it became clear that the EIC simply didn’t pay enough attention.

I could accept differences in style, but not when facts get completely mutilated. So I responded to the immediate editor I had been working with and explained politely that the EIC had gotten the facts wrong. I wrote a lengthy explanation of the facts in detail, filled in the blanks and answered all outstanding questions. In light of the edits, I asked whether they would like me to rework the introductory paragraphs to better match the style that the EIC was aiming for, or whether they preferred to have a got at it themselves using the new information I provided.

The editor responded with the latter, and agreed to my request to show me the article again once they were done to make sure that I was OK with everything.

I knew they were on a tight schedule, so alarm bells started ringing when I hadn’t heard back from the editor after a few days (we had previously been in touch every day). A couple of emails to her went unanswered. I assisted the local editor who called with a few ‘urgent’ fact checking points, but generally speaking I was kept in the dark over what was going on.

I didn’t end up hearing back from the editor until five days later, and by that time the article had already been formatted for publication, with photos and captions and all. I was informed that no more changes would be made, except to correct factual errors. There was absolutely no feedback, no reasoning behind the changes; not even a ‘sorry, we know we promised to make sure you were OK with it, but we’re out of time.’

It was clear why they had been keeping me out of the loop all this time — they obviously wanted to avoid anything that might slow them down, such as dealing with pesky writers who want to have more creative control.

The majority of the near-finished article appeared to be the same on paper except for the intro, but the feel of it was completely different. Key quotes and passages were removed from those initial paragraphs and the remainder of the article no longer flowed on as smoothly as before. It came across as slightly disjointed, especially since new section breaks were inserted at rather unnatural places (presumably because of the formatting). Sadly, the word count was virtually identical to what it was before the EIC got her hands on it.

Being aware that I might have been working too closely to have an objective opinion, I enlisted a couple of other readers to tell me what they thought of the changes. The conclusion was unanimous: the article had lost some of its mojo.

The only feedback I ended up providing was telling them to delete an unnecessary word the copyeditor missed, which they gladly did, but I knew there was no point in giving them anything substantive because nothing would be done.

It’s a disappointing feeling knowing that something you put so much effort into didn’t turn out the way you envisioned it to be, for better or for worse. I appreciate what the editors did and the pressures they must have been under, but the experience left a bit of a bitter aftertaste. I’ve always been receptive towards constructive feedback, and often feedback that’s more negative than anything else (which is a regular occurrence on this blog especially) — I don’t have to agree with it, and it’s never a bad thing to get another perspective.

But I suspect in this case the disappointment stems mainly from my lack of control over the content of something that is ultimately going to have my name attributed to it. That and knowing that the changes I didn’t like were made by someone who didn’t actually read the article properly. It’ll be my most important published piece to date, but unfortunately it’ll be far from my proudest.

My editing lecturer wasn’t shy about telling us all her horror stories in dealing with writers who refuse to budge on every single word and is irrationally defensive about changing things that would unequivocally improve their work. That can be frustrating, I’m sure, but what about the writers who get their hard work trimmed, reshaped and rewritten without even getting a say on the final product?

I still wonder, several weeks on, whether I should have kicked up more of a stink. But what good would it have done other than to give me a bad name? All I can do now is wait a couple of months until the final version is published and hope that when I read it again, I’ll see what I had blown the whole thing out of proportion.

Recurring Nightmares

July 8, 2012 in Blogging, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Paranormal, Study by pacejmiller

I’m not so sure about dream interpretation. It is possible that some dreams might have meanings, but most of mine (the ones I can remember, at least) are incoherent and senseless.

In recent times, however, I have been experiencing a couple of recurring dreams. Not the exact same dream, but dreams with the same theme. I wonder what they could mean.

In the first, which have been happening for quite some time now and come back every now and then, I would get the feeling that I have a loose tooth. It could be a wobbly front tooth that I can twist around, or it could be a dislodging molar with a gap I can play around with using my tongue. It’s a sensation I haven’t had since all my baby teeth fell out, and it absolutely freaks me out, every time.

The tooth could be looser in some dreams than others. Sometimes, it could be more than one tooth. Occasionally, I might even twist and pull the tooth enough that it comes off, and I would distinctively recall licking that empty space on my gums, horrified and panicking. I suppose with modern technology I could just get a fake tooth that probably looks better than the one it is replacing, but it’s never something I think of during the dream. I simply remember being saturated in fear.

In the second recurring dream, which only started in the last few months, I would find myself suddenly realizing that I have a major exam the next day, or the next couple of days, and it would be on a subject I know absolutely nothing about. It never occurs to me that I haven’t sat an examination for three years, or that I never studied the subject before. In that moment, I feel as though I had either never attended my classes or never paid attention, and certainly didn’t do any of the readings.

If the realization comes the night before or several nights before the exam, my initial reaction would usually be — you’ll be okay, you have essentially crammed entire subjects for exams the night before. It’ll just be another all-nighter, which is nothing new for you. But the fear of not being able to study everything in time is still there.

More recently, the timing of the exam has gotten closer and closer, and hence the fear has gotten greater and greater. A few weeks ago, I dreamed that I was on the way to the examination location and I still had no idea what I was doing. Last night, I actually dreamed that I had already missed an exam. I had three exams and I somehow “forgot” about the first one, and I still had two more in the next three days. Lucky I woke up from fright, or else there might have been a wet patch on the bed.

So what could these nightmares mean? Surely there has to be something in my subconscious stirring things up.

For the tooth dream, my guess is that I have a fear of losing my teeth. No offence to anyone out there, but I kind of do have an obsession with clean teeth. I brush religiously and can’t stand the sight of stains and discolourations. Could that be it?

As for the exam dream, it could be any number of things. It could be the deeply-seeded guilt I have accumulated over the years from doing relatively well in exams without genuinely understanding the subject. It could be from the fact that I tend to forget just about everything about a subject almost immediately after the exam finishes. But I have a feeling this is quite common.

It could be another thing. When I studying for my master’s finals  in Cambridge three years ago, it was the first time I ever felt I could not possibly complete by preparations in time, or at least not up to a level that was satisfactory to me. These final exams accounted for 100% of the grade and were all three-hour monsters. A big part of the lack of preparation was because I had spent the better part of the year working on this blog and my novels. A second reason was because I spent about half the pre-exam holiday period travelling around Europe. A third reason was probably laziness and not wanting to miss out on any sleep (I was getting soft).

I ended up doing pretty well in the end, but I do remember a pang of regret because I knew I probably could have and should have done better. So to cut a long story short, maybe it was the subconscious realization that I didn’t give it my all that continues to haunt me.

I’d like to think it’s something else: that I need to finish my novels so that the grades would not have been sacrificed in vain. Yes, and maybe do something about this blog too.


Random Graduation Thoughts and Observations

October 15, 2011 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

I've attended three graduations and we've never done this

I’m back, baby!  I am slowly settling in after the big move and will hopefully be able to post regularly again.

Lost in the mayhem of recent weeks is the fact that I finally graduated from my writing degree.  It was my third graduation and I guess my excitement level was not as high as it should have been as I have become a veteran at these types of events now.  Nevertheless, graduating from anything is an achievement in itself, and it was a good opportunity to catch up with some friends I met throughout the course.

However, comparing this particular graduation to the first one around 6 years ago (also at the same university), it was interesting to see how some things have changed drastically while others have remained the same.  Here are some random thoughts and observations.

For starters, this time, I had to freaking pay a fee to attend my own graduation.  Isn’t that outrageous, egregious and preposterous?  Was it to pay for the gown hire or the venue or the guests?  Doesn’t really matter because there are no excuses for this atrociously dick move by the university.  One would have thought after the thousands of dollars in exorbitant fees collected from students they could have allowed those same students to attend a ceremony that is supposed to celebrate their graduation.  Just sayin’.

Secondly, everything is done online now.  You have to register online and even enter the phonetic pronunciation of your surname so there are no embarrassing mishaps on stage — no doubt a common occurrence with the plethora of overseas graduates.  And did you know that many universities now also have graduation ceremonies overseas as well?  That’s insane.

Thirdly, this particular graduation took place off campus at a function centre.  Renovations may have been the primary reason for the relocation but it felt strange to be graduating away from the place you studied.  No complaints from me though — it was a much better place for photos.

Speaking of photos — man — they are another rip-off scheme.  Most packages are hundreds of dollars and only include a few photos and no frame.  I of course went with the cheapo option and chose an online package where they send you the photos online and you choose which ones you want to save and print.  I’m still waiting for that email…

A lot of universities now also have a semi-compulsory student survey they force you to fill out as soon as you step out of the gown fitting room.  There’s a dude standing at the exit and you pretty much have no choice but to do it on the spot, in exchange for a piece of chocolate of your choosing.

As for the ceremony itself, not too bad.  I expected myself to doze off at regular intervals but for the most part I remained attentive.  I always find the occasional speaker quite boring, and this time it was no different.  I started wondering how much the man got paid for the gig, and whether it was something that deserves more research — surely he must recycle the same speech from ceremony to ceremony, from university to university.  It could be quite a lucrative thing to do.

And what is the deal with the students?  Prior to the ceremony they always have this mini-rehearsal there they tell you where to line up and where to stand once you get up on the stage.  You only need to pay half-attention because you just have to follow the person in front of you.  There are visible markings on the floor so it’s not all that difficult, and all you have to do is tip your hat towards the chancellor or whoever when your name is called — and yet for some inexplicable reason some morons always get it wrong and either stand too close or too far away from where they are supposed to or forget the hat tip.  Makes you wonder how they managed to graduate in the first place (well…let’s face it, it’s not that hard…most students I see when I walk past the computer labs are on Facebook or YouTube anyway)…

Lastly, there is one constant that I have noticed throughout all the graduations I have attended: I have a massive head.  One look at me and the fitters head straight to the last rack of hats, and usually it takes a couple of fittings to find the right one.  And often they are still so tight they leave a V-shaped mark on my forehead.  This time I took the liberty of telling the dude upfront that I had a massive head (like he couldn’t tell) so he got me a cushier one.  Still left a tiny mark though.

News: I’m still alive

October 8, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

It’s been crazy around here lately.  Cray-zee.

No.  Not this crazy.

Or this crazy.

But just crazy in general because of the BIG MOVE, cleaning up, family affairs, catching up with friends and other miscellaneous crap (like graduation).  Writing, reading and blogging has been put on the back burner for now, and probably will be for a few more days.  And yet I have so many writing projects, books and posts still lined up.

Here’s to getting through the next few days!

I’ll be back.

Is it ever too early to start re-writing?

July 26, 2011 in Fantasy, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Source: http://blog.articlestorehouse.com

I’m trying to put my focus back into writing starting this week, and one aspect of that is to revisit my dormant fantasy novel which I have been thinking about a lot these past couple of months.  I still think the book as potential and I like the story it has to tell, but having written significant chunks of it around 2 years ago, I know it will require plenty of work.

Conventional writing wisdom suggests that rewriting comes after completion of the first draft.  The primary goal in the first attempt is to just get the words of the story out of your mind, out of your system and onto the page.  Anne Lamott, who wrote the popular writing book Bird by Bird, discussed at length the unavoidable ‘shitty first drafts’ even excellent and seasoned writers churn out on a regular basis.

The idea is that if you worry and procrastinate over every paragraph, sentence or word, you’ll never generate any momentum and it will take you much longer to finish the story.  And often it’s when you are in that ‘zone’ of pumping out a copious amount of words at a frenetic pace that some of your best writing is generated (though it has to be ‘unearthed’ from all the crappy stuff).

However, although I am not even at the halfway line of the first draft of my fantasy epic (around 150,000 words), I’m highly tempted at the moment to go back to the beginning and rewrite a few of the first chapters.  One of the main reasons is that I realised my beginning lacked a serious punch.  After an action-packed prologue, I started with the usual boring ‘fantasy world introduction’ chapter where I introduced the characters and the world in which they lived in a methodical fashion.  It occurred to me that it would have made a lot more sense to start in the middle of the action, beginning with the final of a tournament in which the protagonist is involved in.  In the current version, the tournament was already over by the time the story began.

But would rewriting before I’ve even finished the first draft be a waste of time?  What if I later change my mind and come up with a better intro?  What if later on I decide to change characters or events?

I read in an interview with Philip Pullman (author of the His Dark Materials trilogy) that he doesn’t have a particular method when it comes to writing and rewriting.  Sometimes he waits until the end and sometimes he does it as he goes along.

In Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing (my review and summary here), he says that first drafts should be completed within 3 months, which is pretty much supernatural for most people out there, but even for him, this essentially means no rewriting until the first draft has been completed.  King also recommended putting the draft aside for a while before coming back to it with fresh eyes.  That said, King might be an anomaly because he seems to churn out pretty decent first drafts.  I say this because he suggests that a second draft should tighten a first draft by 10% and that he usually only does two drafts and a polish for a novel.

Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, said in an interview that he did literally 150-200 drafts of the first 90 pages just to get it right.  Can you imagine that?  I did about 5 or 6 drafts of the first chapter of my Masters writing project and I found it to be brutal already.

In the end, my gut tells me that I should just do whatever I feel like, whether it’s keep going or go back to the beginning.  It’s been so long that anything is better than nothing.